The year of living defensively
Israel and its public image dominated organizational Jewish life in the United States in 5770, a year in which a third Jewish justice was named to the Supreme Court and an Orthodox Jewish boxer rose to the top of his sport.
U.S. Jewry Top 10
1 Defending Israel
In March, with tensions between the United States and Israel flaring over an Israeli announcement of construction in East Jerusalem, speakers at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference called on the Obama administration to keep disagreements with Israel behind closed doors.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rejected that approach in an otherwise friendly speech, but by May Obama seemed determined to assure Jewish voters by inviting rabbis and Jewish members of Congress to a sit-down. Obama’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in July further healed the rift, although Obama’s Jewish critics remained skeptical.
The Goldstone Report in September, harshly critical of Israel’s actions in the Gaza offensive of late 2008, and Israel’s deadly interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla, led to aggressive efforts to defend Israel in the media.
2 World service
After a devastating earthquake in Haiti, Jewish nonprofits mobilized to provide aid. Groups also sought to highlight Israeli volunteers, officials, nongovernment organizations, and industries who rushed to assist Haitians and subsequently maintained a long-term presence in Haiti to help with rebuilding and relief efforts.
In February, in a speech at the University of California, Irvine, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was interrupted repeatedly by protesters and ultimately forced to prematurely conclude his remarks.
The school eventually recommended a one-year suspension for its Muslim Student Association. The incident came to symbolize an increasingly hostile reception for Israel on campus and on the Far Left.
Jewish leaders and thinkers argued against boycotts of Israel, and pointed with alarm at how criticism of Israel was often indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.
4 Who is a Jew, redux
If American Jews resisted criticizing Israel directly over its security or diplomatic polices, they showed no such restraint after Knesset member David Rotem introduced a bill that would consolidate ultimate authority over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate.
Federation and non-Orthodox leaders rushed to Israel to convey their displeasure, saying the bill would further delegitimize the non-Orthodox streams while doing nothing to streamline the conversion process of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
5 A higher authority
Kosher meatpacking executive Sholom Rubashkin was sentenced on June to 27 years in a federal prison for his conviction on financial fraud charges relating to his management of the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa.
Earlier in the month, Rubashkin was acquitted on 67 counts of child labor violations. Rubashkin had his defenders, especially within the fervently Orthodox community, but the scandal served as a catalyst for soul-searching among kosher purveyors and consumers.
6 New name, new boss
In October, the national United Jewish Communities changed its name to the Jewish Federations of North America, in an effort to “create a stronger continental brand and market positioning for the Federation system.”
JFNA’s top executive Jerry Silverman took the job on September 30 after a much-heralded stint as the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where he raised the philanthropic profile of Jewish camps.
Federation leaders facing flat campaigns and a dismal economy hope he can do the same for the federations, whose annual umbrella campaigns raise money for programs in Israel and local Jewish agencies and activities.
7 Justice Kagan
In May, President Obama announced the nomination of solicitor general Elena Kagan to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Her confirmation by the U.S. Senate in August marked the first time that three women and three Jewish members — and not a single White Anglo-Saxon Protestant — serve on the high court at the same time.
8 Mosque and state
In July, the Anti-Defamation League entered a national political fray by opposing the building of an Islamic center near the World Trade Center memorial site.
ADL head Abraham Foxman said bigotry surrounding the debate is “unfair and wrong,” but that out of sensitivity to those who had family members killed on 9/11, “the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.”
But another prominent Jew, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, declared, “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.”
9 Mixed blessings
In one of the most-watched interfaith marriages ever, Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky, a Jewish hedge-fund trader, in July. A minister and rabbi co-officiated; the ceremony included a hupa and ketuba, as well as the Jewish traditions of breaking glass and the groom wearing a talit and kipa.
A national conversation on interfaith marriages ensued. “Traditionalists” worry such ceremonies erase distinctions between faiths and further undermine calls for Jewish continuity; “transformationalists” say intermarriage is to be expected in a tolerant America, and that Jews have to adjust to the new reality of “blended” families.
10 Body and soul
In December, Yuri Foreman, a rabbinical student, became the first Orthodox Jewish boxer in more than 50 years to win a world championship when he beat Daniel Santos for the World Boxing Association super-welterweight crown.
In June, Foreman, a Belarus native living in Brooklyn, via Israel, lost in his first title defense and for the first time as a pro when stopped in the ninth round by four-time champion Miguel Cotto before a crowd of more than 20,000 at Yankee Stadium.
Foreman represented a throwback to the golden age of Jewish boxing, as well as a new kind of role model for observant Jews.